Black youth protestors carry black banner with white raised fists and text that reads "We Want To Live."

OPINION: Gun Violence Is a Symptom of Poverty

by Tammy Morales

When it comes to addressing gun violence in our community, it’s time to put our money where our mouth is. Organizations like Safe Passage, Boys & Girls Club’s SE Network, Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC), and Urban Family invest time in our communities, support our young people, and build community. They have been doing essential work long before Omari Wallace was shot and killed on March 18. In fact, we were supposed to be having a Zoom meeting about the increase of South Seattle shootings when we learned that a young man walked into the Emerald City Bible Fellowship and shot 19-year-old Wallace who was there attending a meeting. 

Gun violence among our youth has become a common occurrence in South Seattle. It happens so often that we sometimes feel mute — knowing that “thoughts and prayers” are not nearly enough to express our sorrow, our devastation at another young life lost or another young life impacted by the criminal legal system. 

And yet, what is less common is a demand to support harm reduction as a means to ending these “common occurrences.” While it’s important that we don’t minimize the real impacts of gun violence, it’s also important that we acknowledge and honor the work of community-based organizations that use a trauma-informed model to address individual behavior. 

Community Has the Answers 

Community safety leaders have been doing the work — from de-escalation training; to youth employment; to activating street corners and the Safeway parking lot with information kiosks, activities, and food; to crisis response, these safety teams are investing time into our young people so that they avoid the criminal legal system. It’s hard work, especially during a pandemic that left our libraries and community centers closed and many of our young people alone at home or in the streets. And too many families are struggling to put food on the table and pay bills. Families are under tremendous financial stress right now, and our young people are not free from that anxiety. 

Addressing the root causes of violence should not include increased police presence in neighborhoods that have been harmed by the paradox of both over-policing and under-policing. The community safety work focuses on prevention and intervention. It seeks responses to these incidents that do not involve police, because as Gregory Davis of RBAC says, “Violence is a symptom of poverty.” That’s why RBAC employs youth, an important strategy to reduce crime.

What Can We Do as a City? 

Davis and others know that to reduce violence, we must change the community conditions that lead to it. As a City Councilmember, I must acknowledge the role of the City in perpetuating disinvestment and contributing to the lack of generational wealth in some neighborhoods. The history of redlining, the school to prison pipeline, the structural racism that many find so hard to talk about — they must be dismantled so that our neighborhoods and the families in them can thrive. But, the hand-wringing needs to stop, and action needs to happen. 

The community safety partners doing the hard work on the ground are calling for us to deliver more for our neighbors. In my role as a City Councilmember for the South End, I have an opportunity to begin reversing that history by moving policy and budget actions that invest in neighborhoods. As Paul Patu noted at a recent People’s Town Hall, there’s no lack of leadership for doing the work of community safety interventions. “We can keep showing up to the fire with buckets,” he said, “but eventually we need water to put the fire out.” We need real investment into changing the community conditions that lead to violence. 

I am committed to follow the community safety lead and listen to those working with our young people every day. I’m trained as a neighborhood planner, so when the partners tell me that changing community conditions can lead to better community safety, I get it. Changing conditions means creating healthy neighborhoods. That means greater food security, more affordable places to live, good jobs with benefits, good schools, parks for people to play in, safe sidewalks and streets. 

Historically, we have not been investing taxpayer dollars to have those impacts. In 2019, Seattle spent $400 million on SPD — who have been under federal consent decree since 2012 due to unconstitutional policing. We spend less than half of that on four departments that could support building healthy communities and vibrant neighborhood business districts. The budgets for the Department of Neighborhoods, Office of Economic Development, Office of Housing, and Office of Planning and Community Development together total $185 million.

How we allocate public resources will mean the difference between true community safety for everyone and a public safety system that continues to prioritize confinement, punishment, and the criminalization of poverty.

Addressing Root Causes  

The City has begun to shift toward addressing root causes. In 2021, we committed $14 million to the Community Safety Initiative (CSI) to support intervention work and to build the capacity of safety partners to scale up. We committed $30 million for participatory budgeting so community can vote on preferred community safety work and $20 million for equitable community-led development. This increase in funding is an acknowledgement that we’ve been doing it wrong.

As a Council, we are saying “We hear you.”

We hear you demanding that we recognize the humanity of our young people. 

We hear you demanding that we stop criminalizing behavior and instead acknowledge the trauma that led to it.

We hear you reminding us that you pay taxes too. You have every right to demand to be paid for the essential work you do.

We hear you and understand we must begin to repair the harm done. We do that by ponying up the investment owed to communities of color.

Talk is cheap. The best way to honor the families who have been devastated by violence is through action. The City must be a real partner, reject business as usual, and take bold steps to invest in what works.

Hold us to it!

Tammy Morales represents South Seattle on the Seattle City Council.

📸 Featured Image: “We Want to Live” rally held in South Seattle on June 7, 2020. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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